How We Can Have Our Hearts Broken Even Though No One Has Left Us
It sounds paradoxical: that we can be heartbroken even though a lover is still with us. And yet, it’s not so strange, because the source of heartbreak is not precisely the physical departure of a lover – but rather the recognition that a partner doesn’t really love us any more, something which we may come to realise even without anyone having taken steps to pack their bags.
In other words, the physical presence of a lover isn’t any sort of guarantee against heartbreak. We might be sharing a bed and the utility bills with a partner – but the love there once was between us may have gone forever. Neither of us is leaving, but we’re realising that perhaps for the rest of our lives, we’re going to have to exist without the feeling that our partner is delighted by our presence, fascinated by our character and longing to hold and caress us.
We may be very alone with this situation. If someone walks out of the door, there is great cultural support: there are songs and films, there are condensed bits of wisdom to lean on (…more fish in the sea etc.) and there are some very moving books. People understand and sympathise.
But the death of love in a continuing relationship has been comparatively neglected. There’s even a distinct lack of sympathy that surrounds the topic: to a romantically-minded culture, it can look rather pitiful to stay together for convenience once passion has gone. If romantic love is everything, then a union without desire is a properly offensive phenomenon.
And yet, there might be many good and strong reasons to stay together even when our hearts have, quietly, been broken. It’s not what people dream of but our finances are intertwined, we’ve got shared commitments, perhaps there are children, we’ve developed friends in common, we’ve established ways of living together that might be convenient to us and a great help to others – and there won’t be too many people available who are keen to start a new relationship with us. So we may be wise to stick where we are, despite the deep vein of sorrow and sense of loss that accompanies us through our long evenings.
The support we need is the realisation that, though the situation is painful and undiscussed, it is not for that matter strange or shameful. It is extremely ordinary and even rather noble. If we left and found someone else, we’d probably end up in the same position a few years later – because in some ways love almost always dies. Romantic intensity isn’t a description of life together in the long term. There are, of course, a few exceptions – but we make the mistake of supposing that because very occasionally a couple stays in love for many years, this is something that’s generally available. Instead, we should see it the way we might certain jobs: of course it’s possible for someone to make a great living by being a standup comic, but this is realistically only an option for a very few, deeply unusual individuals: it tells us nothing about what it possible for us. If we are in a relationship where love has died, we are not particularly missing out, we have not particularly failed: we are simply meeting an ordinary, yet rarely described, fate.